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Where We See Meenakshi
May 8, 2017
Here’s a thought.
When I sit in in crowd of primary colors and painted foreheads while a ritual I do not understand is conducted before us, I am conflicted. I feel the need to take part in the awe, the leaning, arms-extended kind of reverence. I see what it means to them. I understand that every temple from this one to the Meenakshi temples in the heart of Madurai are reenacting the wedding of the goddess to the god Siva, and I understand that this is an annual holy ritual. But I do not see holiness. In fact, I see two round-bellied men in loincloths and big flower crowns falling over their eyes, passing flower necklaces over each other pretending to get married while the little statues of Meenakshi and Siva sit on thrones too big for them like dolls, dressed up for a make-believe game.
I see absurdity. I hear the wailing screech of horns filling the room from tacky speakers on the back wall, and I see a small man vehemently pulling the rope on a bell, so excitedly that the bell is ringing out, clumsy, loud, out of rhythm. It is din, but solemn, reverent din, I remind myself. We should feel moved to tears, we should see greatness in the silly, colorful, wedding of two portly, awkwardly decorated men pretending to be the corporeal versions of little carved statues—because women are not worthy enough beings to come so close to the female goddess who rules this city.
When I cannot laugh I become angry at the demand to feel awe in the face of not only absurdity, but inequality. I see a floor covered in plastic platters with food no one will eat, while men and women are all bones and skin out on the street, starving. I see the rope that divides the room. Women in the back, men in the front. I see that in its most pure form, this is a wedding for a powerful goddess, yet she is played by the smaller man, wearing a smaller crown, being handed over by another man, to a male god, because she was destined to marry him. I see a crowd of women passionately praying to her, painting their necks and foreheads to honor her, tying necklaces of string to bind themselves to Siva as Meenakshi is now bound to him. I see a woman pull back the bowl of red paste she offered me, suddenly tight lips and disapproval eyebrows, when I tell her I am not married.
I revolt at the reactions to this scene, and I feel guilty for my indignant mockery. So I document it: photos without commentary, if you see absurdity so be it, if you see a holy spectacle, fine, but I try to capture and understand it behind the lens.
I soon realize, I cannot put three hours into photographing this unaesthetic stage and I cannot keep thoughts like “gaudy,” and “child-like,” out of my mind while doing it. I don’t want to sully the scene with my bad mood. I am in a sacred place, and, like making bread, I feel like distasteful feelings work their way into the dough, into the fabric of the moment. I don’t want to bring conceit and spite into the making of this ceremony.
I turn around on the floor and observe the crowd that cannot see itself, that has learnt to ignore its own colors, that pays no attention to each other’s eyes. They are beautiful to me. The children trying to be muffled by concerned adults have “holy” in their small noses and those open mouth smiles. There is “awe” in the cheeks of yawning sons on the other side of the rope as we draw into the third hour. Women, so much older, hold “sacred” tightly in their hands, dry hands and crinkled eyes that have had years and years to practice holding.
The stage is a dead space, filled with browning flowers and rehearsed ritual, and devoid of the emotion flooding the faces of this room. Only I seem moved to see it.
So that thought I promised. Does it matter, that I see God in the back of the temple? Does it matter that I see God in the people looking for her, and in the children too busy being authentically honest to care? Does it matter that the whole city bowed to a stone and two portly men in flowers today, if no gods were on stage?
I’d like to say it doesn’t matter.
When I left the temple, a man came out pulling the young autistic boy who had said hello to me earlier. He had touched my arm gently, looked at my skin, and talked quietly in Tamil until someone yelled at him to leave me alone. Everyone was in conversation outside the temple, nobody saw the man grab a pole from the side of the road and hit the boy over the back of his head. But they must have heard him crying, so perhaps they saw, just like I saw their statues in browning flowers, and didn’t care.